The Silmarillion

The Silmarillion
1977 George Allen & Unwin hardback edition. The cover features Tolkien's drawing of an heraldic emblem for Lúthien.
Editor Christopher Tolkien
with Guy Gavriel Kay
Author J. R. R. Tolkien
Illustrator Christopher Tolkien (maps)
Cover artist J. R. R. Tolkien (device)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Tolkien's legendarium
Publisher George Allen & Unwin (UK)
Publication date
15 September 1977[1]
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 365
Award Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1978)
ISBN 0-04-823139-8
OCLC 3318634
LC Class PZ3.T576 Si PR6039.O32
Preceded by The Father Christmas Letters 
Followed by Unfinished Tales 

The Silmarillion (Quenya[silmaˈrilliɔn]) is a collection of mythopoeic works by English writer J. R. R. Tolkien, edited and published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien, in 1977, with assistance from Guy Gavriel Kay.[2] The Silmarillion, along with J. R. R. Tolkien's other works, forms an extensive, though incomplete, narrative that describes the universe of in which are found the lands of Valinor, Beleriand, Númenor, and Middle-earth, within which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place.

After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien's publisher requested a sequel. Tolkien sent them an early draft of The Silmarillion but they rejected the work as being obscure and "too Celtic". The result was that Tolkien began work on "A Long Expected Party", the first chapter of what he described at the time as "a new story about Hobbits", which became The Lord of the Rings.[3]

The Silmarillion comprises five parts. The first part, Ainulindalë, tells of the creation of Eä, the "world that is". Valaquenta, the second part, gives a description of the Valar and Maiar, the supernatural powers in Eä. The next section, Quenta Silmarillion, which forms the bulk of the collection, chronicles the history of the events before and during the First Age, including the wars over the Silmarils that gave the book its title. The fourth part, Akallabêth, relates the history of the Downfall of Númenor and its people, which takes place in the Second Age. The final part, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, is a brief account of the circumstances which led to and were presented in The Lord of the Rings.

The five parts were initially separate works, but it was the elder Tolkien's express wish that they be published together.[2] Because J. R. R. Tolkien died before he finished revising the various legends, Christopher gathered material from his father's older writings to fill out the book. In a few cases, this meant that he had to devise completely new material, though within the tenor of his father's thought, in order to resolve gaps and inconsistencies in the narrative.[4]


The Silmarillion, like Tolkien's other Middle-earth writings, was meant to have taken place at some time in Earth's past.[5] In keeping with this idea, The Silmarillion is meant to have been translated from Bilbo's three-volume Translations from the Elvish, which he wrote while at Rivendell.[6]

Chapters in the book include:

The inside title page contains an inscription written in Tengwar. In the English it reads "The tales of the First Age when Morgoth dwelt in Middle-earth and the Elves made war upon him for the recovery of the Silmarils to which are appended the downfall of Númenor and the history of the Rings of Power and the Third Age in which these tales come to their end."


Ainulindalë and Valaquenta

The first section of The Silmarillion, Ainulindalë ("The Music of the Ainur"[7]), takes the form of a primary creation narrative. Eru ("The One"[8]), also called Ilúvatar ("Father of All"), first creates the Ainur, a group of eternal spirits or demiurges, called "the offspring of his thought". Ilúvatar brings the Ainur together and shows them a theme, from which he bids them make a great music. Melkor – whom Ilúvatar had given the "greatest power and knowledge" of all the Ainur – breaks from the harmony of the music to develop his own song. Some Ainur join him, while others continue to follow Ilúvatar, causing discord in the music. This happens thrice, with Eru Ilúvatar successfully overpowering his rebellious subordinate with a new theme each time. Ilúvatar then stops the music and shows them a vision of Arda and its peoples. The vision disappears after a while, and Ilúvatar offered the Ainur the opportunity to enter into Arda and govern over the new world.

Many Ainur accept, taking physical form and becoming bound to that world. The greater Ainur become known as the Valar, while the lesser Ainur are called the Maiar. The Valar attempt to prepare the world for the coming inhabitants (Elves and Men), while Melkor, who wants Arda for himself, repeatedly destroys their work; this goes on for thousands of years and, through waves of destruction and creation, the world takes shape.

Valaquenta ("Account of the Valar"[7]) describes Melkor and each of the 14 Valar in detail, as well as a few of the Maiar. It also reveals how Melkor seduces many Maiar – including those who would eventually become Sauron and the Balrogs – into his service.

Quenta Silmarillion

Quenta Silmarillion ("The History of the Silmarils"[7]), which makes up the bulk of the book, is a series of interconnected tales set in the First Age that make up the tragic saga of the three jewels, the Silmarils.

The Valar attempt to fashion the world for Elves and Men, but Melkor continually destroys their handiwork. After he destroys the two lamps that illuminated the world, the Valar move to Aman, a continent to the west of Middle-earth, where they establish their home, Valinor. Yavanna creates the Two Trees, which illuminate Valinor, leaving Middle-earth to darkness and Melkor. Soon after, stars created by Varda begin to shine, causing the awakening of the Elves. The elves originally form three groups: the Vanyar, the Noldor, and the Teleri, though some are captured and enslaved by Melkor, eventually to be bred into orcs. Knowing the danger the Elves are in, the Valar decide to fight Melkor to keep the Elves safe. After defeating and capturing Melkor, they invite the Elves to live in Aman. Many Elves accept, while others refuse, and still others start for Aman but stop along the way, including the Elves who later become the Sindar, ruled by the Elf King Thingol and Melian, a Maia. All of the Vanyar and Noldor, and many of the Teleri reach Aman.

In Aman, Fëanor, son of Finwë, King of the Noldor, creates the Silmarils, jewels that glow with the captured light of the Two Trees. Melkor, who had been held in captivity by the Valar, is eventually released after feigning repentance. Melkor deceives Fëanor into believing that his eldest half-brother Fingolfin is attempting a coup against Finwë. This rift leads to the banishment of Fëanor from the Noldorin city Tirion. He creates the fortress Formenos to the north of Tirion. Finwë moves there to live with his favourite son. After many years, Fëanor returns to Tirion to make amends with Fingolfin. Meanwhile, Melkor kills the Two Trees with the help of Ungoliant, a dark spider spirit Melkor found in Aman. Together, Melkor and Ungoliant then escape to Formenos, kill Finwë, steal the Silmarils, and flee to Middle-earth. Melkor keeps the Silmarils and banishes Ungoliant, later attacking the Elvish kingdom of Doriath, ruled by the Elf King Thingol and his wife Melian. He is defeated in the first of five battles of Beleriand, however, and barricades himself in his northern fortress of Angband.

Fëanor swears an oath of vengeance against Melkor and against anyone who withheld the Silmarils from them, even the Valar, and makes his seven sons do the same. He persuades most of the Noldor to pursue Melkor, whom Fëanor renames Morgoth, to Middle-earth. Fëanor's sons seize ships from the Teleri, attacking and killing many of them, and betray many of the Noldor, leaving them behind to make a perilous passage on foot. Upon arriving in Middle-earth, the Noldor under Fëanor attack Melkor and defeat his army, though Fëanor is slain by Balrogs. After a period of peace, Melkor attacks the Noldor, but is placed in a tight siege. Nearly 400 years later, he breaks the siege and drives the Noldor back.

One by one, the Noldor build up kingdoms for themselves throughout the land of Beleriand. Fëanor's firstborn Maedhros wisely choose for him and his brothers to live in the east away from the rest of their kin, knowing that they were still hostile towards each other and would be easily provoked into war with each other if they lived too close to their kinsmen. Fingolfin and his eldest son Fingon live in the northwest. Fingolfin's second son Turgon and Turgon's cousin Finrod notoriously build hidden kingdoms after receiving visions from the Vala Ulmo. Finrod hews cave dwellings which later become the realm of Nargothrond, while Turgon discovers a hidden vale surrounded by mountains, and chooses that place to build the city of Gondolin. Because of the secrecy of these places, they are more secure from Melkor's armies. Gondolin is especially secure, as Turgon takes great care to preserve the secrecy of its location, becoming one of the last Elven strongholds to fall.

After the destruction of the Trees and the theft of the Silmarils, the Valar create the moon and the sun. At the same time, Men awake, some of whom later arrive in Beleriand and ally themselves to the Elves. Beren, a Man who survives the latest battle, wanders into Doriath, where he falls in love with the Elf maiden Lúthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian. Thingol believes no mere Man is worthy of his daughter and sets a seemingly impossible price for her hand: one of the Silmarils. Undaunted, Beren sets out to obtain a jewel. Lúthien joins him, though he tries to dissuade her. Sauron, a powerful servant of Melkor, imprisons Beren, but with Lúthien's help he escapes. Together they enter Melkor's fortress and steal a Silmaril from Melkor's crown. Amazed, Thingol accepts Beren, and the first union of Man and Elf occurs, though Beren is soon mortally wounded and Lúthien dies of grief. Though the fates of Man and Elf after death would sunder the couple forever, she persuades the Vala Mandos to make an exception for them. He gives Beren back his life and allows Lúthien to renounce her immortality to live as a mortal in Middle-earth. Thus, after they die, they will share the same fate.

The Noldor are emboldened by the couple's feat and attack Melkor again, with a great army of Elves, Dwarves and Men. But Melkor had secretly corrupted some of the Men. Thus it is that the Elvish host are utterly defeated, due in part to this treachery. However, many Men remain loyal to the Elves.

None receive more honour than the brothers Húrin and Huor. Huor dies in battle, but Melkor captures Húrin, and curses him to watch the downfall of his kin. Húrin's son, Túrin Turambar, is sent to Doriath, leaving his mother and unborn sister behind in his father's kingdom (which is overrun by the enemy). Túrin achieves many great deeds of valour, the greatest being the defeat of the dragon Glaurung. Despite his heroism, however, Túrin falls under the curse of Melkor, which leads him to unwittingly murder his friend Beleg and to marry and impregnate his sister Nienor, who had lost her memory through Glaurung's enchantment. Before their child is born, the dragon lifts the enchantment before it dies. Nienor takes her own life. Upon learning the truth, Túrin throws himself on his sword.

Huor's son, Tuor, becomes involved in the fate of the hidden Noldorin kingdom of Gondolin. He marries Idril, daughter of Turgon, Lord of Gondolin (the second union between Elves and Men). When Gondolin falls, betrayed from within by the king's traitorous nephew Maeglin, Tuor saves many of its inhabitants. All of the Elvish kingdoms in Beleriand eventually fall, and the refugees flee to a haven by the sea created by Tuor. The son of Tuor and Idril, Eärendil the Half-elven, is betrothed to Elwing, herself descended from Beren and Lúthien. Elwing brings Eärendil the Silmaril of Beren and Lúthien; the jewel enables Eärendil to cross the sea to Aman to seek help from the Valar. The Valar oblige; they attack and defeat Melkor, completely destroying Angband, though most of Beleriand sinks. They expel Melkor from Arda. This ends the First Age of Middle-earth. The last two Silmarils are seized by Fëanor's surviving sons, Maedhros and Maglor. However, because of all the evil deeds the brothers have committed in their quest to gain the Silmarils, they are no longer counted worthy to receive them, so the Silmarils burn their hands. In anguish, Maedhros kills himself by leaping into a fiery chasm with his Silmaril while Maglor throws his jewel into the sea and spends the rest of his days wandering along the shores of the world, singing his grief.

Eärendil and Elwing have two children: Elrond and Elros. As descendants of immortal elves and mortal men, they are given the choice of which lineage to belong to: Elrond chooses to be an Elf, his brother a Man. Elros became the first king of Númenor and lives to be 500 years old, being given an extended lifespan.


Akallabêth ("The Downfallen"[7]) comprises about 30 pages, and recounts the rise and fall of the island kingdom of Númenor, inhabited by the Dúnedain. After the defeat of Melkor, the Valar give the island to the three loyal houses of Men who had aided the Elves in the war against him. Through the favour of the Valar, the Dúnedain are granted wisdom and power and longer life, beyond that of other Men. Indeed, the isle of Númenor lies closer to Aman than to Middle-earth. The fall of Númenor came about in large measure through the influence of the corrupted Maia Sauron (the chief servant of Melkor), who arose during the Second Age and tried to conquer Middle-earth.

The Númenóreans move against Sauron, Melkor's chief lieutenant. They are so powerful that Sauron perceives that he cannot defeat them by force. He surrenders himself to be taken as a prisoner to Númenor. There he quickly enthralls the king, Ar-Pharazôn, urging him to seek the immortality that the Valar have apparently denied him, fanning the envy that many of the Númenóreans had begun to hold against the Elves of the West and the Valar. The people of Númenor strive to avoid death, but this only weakens them and speeds the gradual diminishing of their lifespans. Sauron urges them to wage war against the Valar themselves to seize the immortality denied them. Ar-Pharazôn raises the mightiest army and fleet Númenor has ever seen, and sails against Aman. The Valar and Elves of Aman, stricken with grief over their betrayal, call on Ilúvatar for help. When Ar-Pharazôn lands, Ilúvatar destroys his forces and sends a great wave to submerge Númenor, killing all but those Númenóreans who had remained loyal to the Valar.

Sauron's physical manifestation is destroyed in the ruin of Númenor, but as a Maia, his spirit returns to Middle-earth, though he is no longer able to take the fair form he once had. The loyal Númenóreans reach the shores of Middle-earth. Among these survivors are Elendil, their leader and a descendant of Elros, and his sons Isildur and Anárion, who had saved a seedling from Númenor's white tree, the ancestor of that of Gondor. They found two kingdoms: Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south. Elendil reigns as High-king of both kingdoms, but commits the rule of Gondor jointly to Isildur and Anárion. The power of the kingdoms in exile is greatly diminished from that of Númenor, "yet very great it seemed to the wild men of Middle-earth".

At the end, it is mentioned that the sunken Númenor came to be called "Atalantë", a name not used when it existed. This led many readers to the conclusion that Númenor is Atlantis; this direct link was, however, denied by Tolkien himself, who asserted that it is a natural word following the constructs of Quenya.

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

The concluding section of the book, comprising about 20 pages, describes the events that take place in Middle-earth during the Second and Third Ages. In the Second Age, Sauron re-emerges in Middle-earth. The Rings of Power are forged by Elves led by Celebrimbor, but Sauron secretly forges his own ring to control the others. War breaks out between the peoples of Middle-earth and Sauron, culminating in the War of the Last Alliance, in which Elves and the remaining Númenóreans unite to defeat Sauron, bringing the Second Age to an end. The Third Age begins with the claiming of the One Ring by Isildur after Sauron's overthrow. Isildur is ambushed and killed at the Gladden Fields shortly afterwards, and the One Ring is lost in the River Anduin. This section also gives a brief overview of the events leading up to and taking place in The Lord of the Rings, including the waning of Gondor, the re-emergence of Sauron, the White Council, Saruman's treachery, and Sauron's final destruction along with the One Ring, which ends the Third Age.

Concept and creation

Development of the text

Tolkien first began working on the stories that would become The Silmarillion in 1914,[9] intending them to become an English mythology that would explain the origins of English history and culture.[10] Much of this early work was written while Tolkien, then a British officer returned from France during World War I, was in hospital and on sick leave.[11] He completed the first story, "The Fall of Gondolin", in late 1916.[12]

He called his collection of nascent stories The Book of Lost Tales.[6] This became the name for the first two volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which include these early texts. The stories employ the narrative device of a mariner named Eriol (in later versions, an Anglo-Saxon named Ælfwine) who finds the island of Tol Eressëa, where the Elves live; and the Elves tell him their history.[13] However, Tolkien never completed The Book of Lost Tales; he left it to compose the poems "The Lay of Leithian" and "The Lay of the Children of Húrin".[6]

The first complete version of The Silmarillion was the "Sketch of the Mythology" written in 1926[14] (later published in Volume IV of The History of Middle-earth). The "Sketch" was a 28-page synopsis written to explain the background of the story of Túrin to R. W. Reynolds, a friend to whom Tolkien had sent several of the stories.[14] From the "Sketch" Tolkien developed a fuller narrative version of The Silmarillion called Quenta Noldorinwa[15] (also included in Volume IV). The Quenta Noldorinwa was the last version of The Silmarillion that Tolkien completed.[15]

In 1937, encouraged by the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien submitted to his publisher George Allen & Unwin an incomplete but more fully developed version of The Silmarillion called Quenta Silmarillion,[6] but they rejected the work as being obscure and "too Celtic".[16] The publisher instead asked Tolkien to write a sequel to The Hobbit.[16] Tolkien began to revise The Silmarillion, but soon turned to the sequel, which became The Lord of the Rings.[17] He renewed work on The Silmarillion after completing The Lord of the Rings,[18] and he greatly desired to publish the two works together.[19] But when it became clear that would not be possible, Tolkien turned his full attention to preparing The Lord of the Rings for publication.[20]

In the late 1950s Tolkien returned to The Silmarillion, but much of his writing from this time was concerned more with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the work than with the narratives themselves. By this time, he had doubts about fundamental aspects of the work that went back to the earliest versions of the stories, and it seems that he felt the need to resolve these problems before he could produce the "final" version of The Silmarillion.[18] During this time he wrote extensively on such topics as the nature of evil in Arda, the origin of Orcs, the customs of the Elves, the nature and means of Elvish rebirth, and the "flat" world and the story of the Sun and Moon.[18] In any event, with one or two exceptions, he wrought little change to the narratives during the remaining years of his life.[18]

Posthumous publication

For several years after his father's death, Christopher Tolkien compiled a Silmarillion narrative. Christopher's intentions seem to have been mostly to use the latest writings of his father's that he could,[citation needed] and to keep as much internal consistency (and consistency with The Lord of the Rings) as possible,[21] though he admitted that complete consistency was impossible.[2] As explained in The History of Middle-earth, Christopher drew upon numerous sources for his narrative, relying on post-Lord of the Rings works where possible, but ultimately reaching back as far as the 1917 Book of Lost Tales to fill in portions of the narrative which his father had planned to write but never addressed. In one later chapter of Quenta Silmarillion, "Of the Ruin of Doriath", which had not been touched since the early 1930s, he had to construct a narrative practically from scratch.[22] The final result, which included genealogies, maps, an index, and the first-ever released Elvish word list, was published in 1977. Because of Christopher's extensive explanations (in The History of Middle-earth) of how he compiled the published work, much of The Silmarillion has been debated by readers. Christopher's task is generally accepted as very difficult given the state of his father's texts at the time of his death: some critical texts were no longer in the Tolkien family's possession, and Christopher's task compelled him to rush through much of the material. Christopher reveals in later volumes of The History of Middle-earth many divergent ideas which do not agree with the published version. Christopher Tolkien has suggested that, had he taken more time and had access to all the texts, he might have produced a substantially different work. But he was compelled by considerable pressure and demand from his father's readers and publishers to produce something publishable as quickly as possible.[citation needed]

In October 1996, Christopher Tolkien commissioned illustrator Ted Nasmith to create full-page full-colour artwork for the first illustrated edition of The Silmarillion. It was published in 1998, and followed in 2004 by a second edition featuring corrections and additional artwork by Nasmith.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Christopher Tolkien published most of his father's Middle-earth writings as the 12-volume The History of Middle-earth series. In addition to the source material and earlier drafts of several portions of The Lord of the Rings, these books greatly expand on the original material published in The Silmarillion, and in many cases diverge from it. There is much that Tolkien intended to revise but only sketched out in notes, and some new texts surfaced after the publication of The Silmarillion. These books also make it clear just how unfinished the later parts of The Silmarillion really were: some parts were never rewritten after the early versions in Lost Tales.


The Silmarillion is a complex work exhibiting the influence of many sources. A major influence was the Finnish epic Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo. Influence from Greek mythology is also apparent. The island of Númenor, for example, recalls Atlantis.[23] This, however, Tolkien later described in a letter to Christopher Bretherton as merely a "curious chance".

Greek mythology also colours the Valar, who borrow many attributes from the Olympian gods.[24] The Valar, like the Olympians, live in the world, but on a high mountain, separated from mortals;[25] But the correspondences are only approximate; the Valar also contain elements of Norse mythology. Several of the Valar have characteristics resembling various Æsir, the gods of Asgard.[26] Thor, for example, physically the strongest of the gods, can be seen both in Oromë, who fights the monsters of Melkor, and in Tulkas, the physically strongest of the Valar.[27] Manwë, the head of the Valar, exhibits some similarities to Odin, the "Allfather".[27] Tolkien also said that he saw the Maia Olórin (Gandalf) as an "Odinic wanderer".[28]

Influence of the Bible and traditional Christian narrative are seen in The Silmarillion in the conflict between Melkor and Eru Ilúvatar, a parallel of the polarity of Lucifer and God.[29] Further, The Silmarillion tells of the creation and fall of the Elves, as Genesis tells of the creation and fall of Man.[30] As with all of Tolkien's works, The Silmarillion allows room for later Christian history, and one draft even has Finrod, a character in The Silmarillion, speculating on the necessity of Eru's (God's) eventual Incarnation to save mankind.[31]

Medieval Christian cosmology shows its influence especially in the account of the creation of the universe as the manifestation of a sort of song sung by God with which the angels harmonize until the fallen angel introduces discord. St. Augustine's writings on music, as well as the extensive medieval tradition of the divine harmony—more familiar to us today in the notion of the "music of the spheres"—served as bases for this telling of creation.

Celtic mythology show its influence in the exile of the Noldorin Elves, for example, that borrow elements from the story of Irish legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann.[32] Welsh influence is seen in the Elvish language Sindarin, that Tolkien gave "a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh ... because it seems to fit the rather 'Celtic' type of legends and stories told of its speakers".[33]

Critical response

At the time of release, reviews of The Silmarillion were generally mixed to negative. The Silmarillion was criticized for being too serious, lacking the light-hearted moments that were found in The Lord of the Rings and especially The Hobbit.[34][35][36] Time magazine lamented that there was "no single, unifying quest and, above all, no band of brothers for the reader to identify with".[34] Other criticisms included difficult-to-read archaic language[37][38][39] and many difficult and hard-to-remember names.[37][40]

Robert M. Adams of The New York Review of Books called The Silmarillion "an empty and pompous bore", "not a literary event of any magnitude", and even claimed that the main reason for its "enormous sales" was the "Tolkien cult" created by the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, predicting that more people would buy The Silmarillion than would ever read it.[37][41] The School Library Journal called it "only a stillborn postscript" to Tolkien's earlier works.[36] Peter Conrad of the New Statesman even went so far as to say that "Tolkien can't actually write".[42]

Nonetheless, a few reviewers praised the scope of Tolkien's creation. The New York Times Book Review acknowledged that "what is finally most moving is … the eccentric heroism of Tolkien's attempt".[35] TIME described The Silmarillion as "majestic, a work held so long and so powerfully in the writer's imagination that it overwhelms the reader".[34] The Horn Book Magazine even lauded the "remarkable set of legends conceived with imaginative might and told in beautiful language".[43] John Calvin Batchelor, reviewing the book for The Village Voice, lauded the book as a "difficult but incontestable masterwork of fantasy" and praised the character of Melkor, describing him as "a stunning bad guy" whose "chief weapon against goodness is his ability to corrupt men by offering them trappings for their vanity".[44]

In a 2019 article, Le Monde called The Silmarillion a "cornerstone of Tolkien's imagination" and "the book by J. R. R. Tolkien that rules them all".[45]

Influence in music

The Norwegian classical composer Martin Romberg has written three full-scale symphonic poems, Quendi (2008), Telperion et Laurelin (2014), and Fëanor (2017), inspired by passages from The Silmarillion. The works were premiered by orchestras in Southern France between 2009 and 2017.[46][47]

See also